In 2015, the European Union faced rising figures of people seeking refuge in Europe in an attempt to escape war, poverty and persecution. Images and accounts of families and children fleeing their homes in cramped and dangerous conditions across the Mediterranean put an increasing amount of pressure on governments and the EU to act fast in an unprecedented dilemma.
At this point, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a decision dubbed as the biggest gamble of her career in order to prevent what she described as a “humanitarian crisis”.
After the Hungarian government closed the main railway stations in Budapest in a move to stop asylum seekers boarding trains to western Europe, Merkel hastily formed a plan with the Austrian government resulting in the refugees boarding trains to Munich a few hours later.
For a brief moment, Germany basked in its new worldwide image as the humanitarian heart of Europe. Yet, as former environment minister Norbert Röttgen explained, “collectively, Germany underestimated the longer-term implications and consequences” of this move.
For a brief moment, Germany basked in its new worldwide image as the humanitarian heart of Europe
Germany’s invitation was putting strain on the rest of Europe. Repeated requests for a quota to evenly distribute migrants across the EU were ignored. Gradually, Merkel’s approval ratings dropped, as did hope in her new policy.
By the end of 2015, the situation had turned sour with the rise of the right-wing Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) and news of sexual assaults carried out by non-native Germans on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. The run up to the September 2017 German election was met with an increased support for the AfD who eventually polled as the third party with 12.6% of votes, meaning the Eurosceptic AfD became Germany’s first far-right party to win parliament seats in nearly six decades.
Yet the election’s outcome proved to be something of a double-edged sword. Not only did it cement a rise in support for the right-wing, but Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) failed to gain the necessary 50% of seats, which led to a gruelling seven months of negotiations in an attempt to form a coalition. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, negotiations of a different kind were taking place as the government tried to form a Brexit deal whilst members of Theresa May’s cabinet resigned in quick succession.
Eventually, however, the conservative CDU reached a deal with the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). The CDU-CSU coalition has proved to be a strong partnership in the past, yet this summer saw a disagreement over migration policy nearly lead to its breakdown.
Familiar images and headlines surfaced of migrant rescue boats across the Mediterranean struggling to reach European ports without being turned away. The recent example of the Aquarius reaching Valencia after Malta and Italy refused to allow it to dock added a sense of wishful hindsight to Merkel’s previous requests for even migrant quotas throughout Europe.
Part of Merkel’s determination to uphold an EU-wide deal caused tensions with one of her closest allies. CSU leader Horst Seehofer maintained German police should be able to turn away migrants at the Bavarian border if they had sought asylum elsewhere, and following unsuccessful talks with his coalition leader Mrs Merkel, he then offered to resign as party leader and interior minister if a deal was not found within the EU, which allowed Germany to have some of its own terms to handle migrant numbers. Undoubtedly, this would have threatened to end the coalition altogether.
After complaining that a meeting with Merkel had been a “conversation with no effect” as they tried to discuss a new EU deal on migration, a crisis-point meeting in the early hours of the following day led to a breakthrough in compromise.
the election’s outcome proved to be something of a double-edged sword
General secretaries of both parties later announced that Germany would develop transit centres where asylum seekers already registered in another European Union country would be processed before being returned to that country, where possible – something which Greece and Spain agreed to in Brussels during crux talks. If that is not able to happen, both parties agreed the asylum seekers would be sent back across the border to Austria. Whilst it may not fully adhere to the EU-wide deal Merkel had hoped for, she reasoned that it kept in line with its “spirit of partnership”, and confirmed that Seehofer would be staying on in his positions.
Over the same weekend, Europe’s leaders had met in Brussels and agreed it was best to deal with the issue collectively, although the vague wording of the agreement meant participating nations can be involved on a voluntary basis, fuelling the internal debate in Germany.
Ultimately, whilst this breakthrough could be viewed as good news for the coalition, it does mean that both Merkel and Seehofer faced defeat in part on both their ideal plans for the policy and could lead to more scepticism in the Germans’ view of their chancellor, but time will tell. Seehofer himself hit back when he withdrew his threat to resign, claiming that he “wouldn’t be thrown out by the woman he’d put in power” – and for now at least, that appears to be true.